25 Surprising Facts About Online Education

Online education is booming. We all know the now obvious benefits that are advertised at every institution that offers online education. It is convenient and cost effective. It can now usually be accessed at any time and place. Websites promoting or informing potential students about online education have told us of the comfort of learning at your own pace and location. However, here are 25 surprising facts that most people may not know about online education.


Online Schooling is Growing Fast!

Distance education is big! And is growing. In contrast to a still common notion, online higher learning is not limited to a certain type of student. Distance education is used by students of all walks of life in almost every field of study. Because of its rapid growth, universities and colleges now focus more upon distance education and placing resources in online education presentation and development. This means that distance education students get schooling and training that are tailored for the needs and traits of the online learning environment and community.

  • The most recent (2014) data reports that out of 20.2 million total college and univerisity students in America, almost 5.8 million of them, close to 30%, are enrolled in some form of distance education.
  • Undergraduate participation in distance education between 2007-8 and 2011-12 grew from 21% to 32%.
    • The rapid increase in online learning is confirmed when one considers the fact that in 2003-4 only 16% of undergraduates had any participation in distance education.
  • Graduate school has the highest rate of participation in online studies. For the 2011-12 academic years a full 36% of graduate students were enrolled in some form of distance learning.
    • This is up from 23% in 2007-8.
  • 36% of students in 2011-12 studying through private, for-profit institutions enrolled in distance education.
  • 33% students at public institutions the same year took online courses.
  • 21% of students at private non-profit school enrolled in distance education.


Why do Many Choose Online Learning? 

There are many reasons to study online. Common reasons are convenience and accessibility, scheduling flexibility and accelerated courses. These allow students to move more quickly through their studies than they could in the more common brick and mortar institutions. Distance education gives students the chance to continue in their careers and personal duties while earning their degrees. On the other hand, there are other good, though not so clear, and even surprising reasons for learning online.

  • Younger students are drawn to online studies
    • From 2012 to 2015 online students under the age of 25 jumped from 13% to 25%, citing the economic pressure of balancing increasing cost with the need for an income while in school.
  • Online education is sometimes viewed as more family-friendly because it allows students to pursue higher education without the stress and cost of moving and changing to a whole new way of life.
  • Students are now, it appears, less concerned with the “college experience memories” and just want to get their degree.
  • Students don’t worry as much about how their degree is gained, and distance learning is as good as any on-site education for getting the desired education and credentials.
  • Many students prefer to study in the comfort of their own place of living and on their own schedule without the added social pressures that come with college life and class-room settings.


Online Education is for All Age Groups

A common error about distance education is that it is more geared towards and a better fit for students who aren’t able to attend traditional classes. This can be because of age and the changes in state of life, work responsibilities and other similar reasons that college would create. But, the most recent data shows that distance learning is highly diverse. There is a large number of students of all ages who are working in an online program or in online courses. Online learning appeals to students of all ages because it gives the convenience, pacing and flexibility they’re looking for. According to the most recent studies:

  • 26.5% of students enrolled in some form of distance education were between the ages of 15-23 
  • 36.5% of students enrolled in some form of distance education were between the ages of 24-29
  • 40.9% of students enrolled in some form of distance education were 30+ years of age

When this data is further boiled down, the picture shifts to show that although distance learning is not exclusive to the 24+ age brackets, older students tend to study  in distance learning programs at a higher rate than younger students:

  • 4.5% of students in the 15-23 age group participate solely in online courses and 3.2% of these students earn their degree completely online
  • 10.4% of the 24-30 age group are enrolled in only online courses and 8% of this group earn their degree solely through distance education
  • 15.9% of the total 30+ age group do their college work entirely online and 13% of them earned their degree only through online courses



Many reasons are offered for the percentages of male and female students enrolled in distance education. The most recent data shows that more women than men enroll in online course and/or degree programs. Among undergraduate students the ratio between women and men is more even. In online graduate studies the number of female over male students is greater. Without trying to provide the many reasons why this is the case, here are the facts:

  • In undergraduate studies in 2011-12 34.5% of online students were female and 28.5% reported as male
  • In graduate studies in the same year 39% were female and 31.5% were male



Online studies are very racially and/or ethnically diverse. The National Center for Education Statistics provides the following breakdown of percentages of students in terms of their ethnic background:

  • Undergraduates enrolled in distance learning according to ethnicity:
    • 33% Caucasian
    • 32.7% African American
    • 27.9% Hispanic
    • 26% Asian
    • 29.9% Pacific Islander
    • 32.6% Native American/Alaska Native
    • 30.6% Two or more races
  • Graduate students enrolled in distance learning according to ethnicity:
    • 36.9% Caucasian
    • 48.8% African American
    • 34.6% Hispanic
    • 19.4% Asian
    • 44.4% Pacific Islander
    • 55.1% Native American/Alaska Native
    • 40.4% Two or more races


Online Learners Set their own Level of Learning Engagement

On account of the freedom and flexibility online schooling offers, studies find that students enrolled in online courses and degree programs vary widely from part-time students seeking to complete a degree, to students looking to advance their careers through more training and education, to full-time students, seeking to earn an undergraduate or graduate degrees. Here’s the mix:

  • Undergraduate Engagement:
    • 28.8% of students enrolled are full-time
    • 35.5% of students are part-time
    • 35% mix full-time and part-time study
  • Graduate Engagement:
    • 31.7% of students are full-time
    • 41% are part-time
    • 36.9% mix full-time and part-time study


Study What You Want

Online colleges offer many more programs in a wider range of fields than you might expect. Students just like you are putting to very good use these great learning options. If a person thought that online college learning offers only a very small number of courses that relate to only a few basic areas of study, he or she would be in for a surprise at the vast and growing number of online courses, certificate and degree options. Hundreds, if not thousands, of online colleges courses in dozens of fields are now are open to distance learners. From business to computer science to education, engineering, health and sciences, to technical and vocational training, distance education has the power fill most any educational need. Online undergraduate and graduate students divide into the following groups of study:

  • Undergraduate fields of study:
    • 40.8% Computer Science and Information
    • 39.3%  Business and Management
    • 33.8% Education
    • 33.3 Health
    • 31.8% Social and Behavioral Sciences
    • 30.8% Humanities
    • 26.7% Life Sciences
    • 23.2% Engineering
    • 22.3% Vocation and/or Technical Training
    • 22.1% Physical Sciences
    • 20.4% Mathematics
    • 30.5% Other
    • 27.6% Undeclared
  • Graduate fields of study:
    • 48.8% Education
    • 40.8% Business and Management
    • 36.6% Social and Behavior Sciences
    • 36.5% Health
    • 28.1% Humanities
    • 25.5% Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science
    • 13.9% Life and Physical Sciences
    • 10.3% Law
    • 38.6% Other


Surprise! The Majority of Distance Learning Students are Not Employed While They’re Enrolled in Online Studies

This may seem counter intuitive. Surely, online education makes living the life of both student and employee much more manageable. Truth be told, the majority of online college students don’t seem to have jobs outside of their studies. The level of students with outside jobs becomes much higher among online graduate students as compared with their undergraduate counterparts.

  • For undergraduate students enrolled in some form of distance education only 36.2% report extracurricular employment while taking classes.
  • 43.7%  of Graduate students in this same situation reported having a job

For those whose entire degree is online the degree of employment for both undergraduates and graduate students goes down. At the same time the gap between employed graduate students versus undergraduates grows larger.

  • 24.1% of graduate students taking their entire degree online report outside works while they are in the midst of studies
  • 7.6% of undergraduates pursuing an exclusive online degree report having jobs


Online College While Still Living at Home?

It is true that most of the people who receive an online education are out of their parents’ homes. But, it may come as a surprise that there is a large percentage of undergraduates taking online courses and earning online degrees under their parents’ or guardians’ roofs. Independent undergraduate students are very attracted to online education as well, and the largest groups of independent undergrads have dependents of their own. Online graduate studies are almost pursued independents. The largest group that the option for online education assists is that of unmarried independent students who have their own dependents. The dependency status for distance education students reveals some surprising facts about the kinds of students online education is most serving.

  • Undergraduate distance education dependency status:
    • 25.5% of undergraduates taking online courses are dependents
    • 33.6% of undergraduates taking online courses are independents, with no dependents and unmarried
    • 37.4% of undergraduates taking online courses are independents who are married with no dependents
    • 38.2% of undergraduates taking online courses are independents who aren’t married with dependents of their own
    • 44.9% of undergraduates enrolled in online courses are independents who are married with dependents
  • Graduate distance education dependency status:
    • 28.1% of graduate students are independents, unmarried and with no dependents
    • 36.1% of graduate students are independents, married with no dependents
    • 52% of graduate students are independents, unmarried and with dependents
    • 45.6% of graduate students are independents, married and with dependents


Private or Public? Non-profit or for Profit? 

What online institutions attract the most students? Online education has created a space for both the establishment and rapid growth of private, for-profit distance education schools and degree programs. Public and private, non-profit online options are very popular in their own right. It may be a surprise to some that for-profit distance education programs receive the highest number of both undergraduate and graduate students. In undergraduate distance learning, for-profit online schools, according to the latest statistics, has a healthy lead over public and private non-profit avenues of distance education. In graduate studies the gap between for-profit and public or private non-profit school significantly increases.

  • Undergraduates’ participation in non-profit versus for-profit online education
    • 33.2% of undergraduates participate in distance education through public, non-profit institutions and programs
    • 21.3% of undergraduates in distance education go through private, non-profit colleges and universities
    • 53% of undergraduates enrolled in online classes take classes through for-profit institutions
  • Graduate students’ participation in non-profit versus for-profit online education
    • 32.8% of graduate students participate in distance education through public, non-profit institutions and programs
    • 28.5% of graduate students in distance education go through private, non-profit colleges and universities
    • 74.1% of graduate students enrolled in online classes take classes through for-profit institutions


Know What Those Most Likely to Hire You Are Looking For

For some jobs, whether or not a degree is earned through a private, for-profit online school or a non-profit online school is a key factor for judging who is the most likely best hire. It’s important to know how likely employers in your field of study and future work view this question. Some jobs tend to favor online degrees and training from non-profit schools over the same degrees from for-profit schools. Before you enroll in courses or a degree program, do some looking around among possible future employers to see if they have a preference one way or the other. This could mean the difference between getting a return call on your job application or not!


Students with Disabilities Excel Through Online Learning

Undergraduate students with disabilities are more likely to enroll in distance education. The most recent information on this topic is from the 2007-8 academic year. What this data reveals is that students with disabilities lasting 6 or more months such as impaired mobility, sensory disability as well as disabilities in learning, remembering and fulfilling other educational needs enroll in some form of distance learning at a higher rate than do students who do not report any disabilities. Sensory disability refers to conditions such blindness and deafness. Disability in learning can be caused by psychological, emotional or learning impairments that can affect a student’s ability to be successful in traditional college settings.

  • No disability
    • 20% of all undergraduate with no disability enroll in some form of distance education
    • 4% of all undergraduate with no disability are in exclusively online programs
  • Mobility Impairment
    • 26% of all undergraduates who enroll in some form of distance education have some form of mobility impairment
    • 4% of all undergraduates who study in a 100% online degree program have a form of mobility impairment
  • Sensory Impairment
    • 21% of all undergraduates enrolled in distance education have a form of sensory impairment
    • 4% of all undergraduates in 100% online degree programs are sensory impaired
  • Other Long-lasting Disabilities
    • 20% of all undergraduates taking online courses have a long-lasting disability that is not mobility or sensory impairment
    • 3% of all undergraduates who take their degree solely through distance education have a long-lasting disability


Distance Education Students get Slightly better Grades than Face-to-face Students! 

This may come as a surprise to many, but the U.S. Department of Education reports that students completing online courses perform slightly better then their traditionally educated counterparts. A recent study conducted by the Department of Education “found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Other studies argue that online students are more likely to drop out of courses than traditional students. However, if you have the motivation and discipline for online learning, you’ll be in the company of high achieving distance learners!


“There’s No Place Like Home.” 

Although online schooling may seem to remove any reason for choosing to study through a school in one’s home state, more students choose to study online through schools in their home states. In 2014 there were a total 2.66 million students enrolled in online college courses and/or programs:

  • 1.39 million (52%) of students studying online stayed in-state
  • 1.12 million (42%) of students in online courses studied with out-of-state institutions

The majority of in-state online students pursue their studies through public, non-profit institutions. Federal and local financial aid and scholarships are likely a strong influence for these students.

When one looks at private distance learning options the proportion between in and out-of-state institutions is reversed. Private for-profit schools are the schools of choice for students who look beyond their home state for a distance education. Of the 1.12 million students taking classes online classes through out-of-state programs:

  • 159,637 (14%) of students are enrolled in programs offered by public colleges and universities
  • 959,940 (85%) of students in out-of-state distance education enrolled at private college and universities. Of these:
    • 289,967 (30%) enroll in private not-for-profit institutions, while
    • 669,973 (70%) students are enrolled in private, for-profit schools


Online Degrees Open Up Higher Education for Students in Poorer Countries. 

Through advances in technology and communications, a college education through distance education is a global possibility. The advent of online education makes it possible for students who are outside the USA to receive advanced training and earn college degrees without having to leave their native countries. Online education is booming in poorer countries, which promises to raise the economic and social conditions in these countries.

The 2016 Distance Education: Statewide, Institutional, and International Applications provides massive documentation on the rapid growth of international participation in US-based as well as non-American online colleges and universities by international students throughout the world.


Distance Education Offers Financial Aid, Too! 

Distance education is defined by the National Center for Education Statistics as: “any online class or degree program conducted entirely online” [source]. Many online schools and degree programs participate in the Federal Financial Aid program, and are thereby able to offer distance learning students access to federal loans and grants just like on-site colleges and universities. If you are looking to receive financial aid be sure to check your school’s financial aid page to determine if your school participates. This website has more information on financial aid.


Be Aware! Online Education is Not Always Less Expensive. 

A common assumption is that online education costs are less than their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. This is often true. However, the savvy student will want to make sure his or her distance education choice is actually the best deal. It’s important to look around a bit and compare costs. Often one will find that schools will have different tuition amounts for in-state and out-of-state online students. Also, online courses will have “per course” fees that bump the online costs above the on-site costs for the same courses. It’s always good to double check when it comes to cost.


Not all College and University Faculty Are in Favor of Online Education. 

Even with its rapid growth, development and expansion as well as the new opportunities it creates for students to receive college instruction, many college and university professors remain wary and unconvinced about distance education. U.S. News & World Report notes that, according to a recent surveys, “Only 30.2 percent of officials surveyed… said their faculty members’ accept the value and legitimacy of online education.” The same article makes the point that online education at the college level continues to grow, and “A lack of faculty support is… [an] obstacle schools must overcome…”. The take away from this is that the distance education student should make sure to be aware that not every professor in online education will believe in distance education as much as the student does. And, students should gravitate towards enthusiastic professors and institutions that give their full backing to their distance education programs.


Employers More and More Value Online Courses and Degrees.

However, watch out for common pitfalls in making online college choices. To make your hard-earned online degree or training most attractive be sure to check into the following key areas and be sure to be able to explain your reasons for making the choice to study online. Employers really do look at these issues and questions about your own personal motivations do arise in the course of job interviews.

  • Make sure your school is accredited. Accreditation can be either regional or national.
    • Regional Accreditation is generally preferred by employers.
    • National Accreditation is commonly considered less valuable than regional
  • School reputation is important.
    • Employers not only ask what your degree is in, but where you got it.
    • A job candidate with a degree from a school with a high reputation will have a considerable advantage over another candidate whose degree is from a little-known school.
  • Know and be able to explain why you chose online education. Some common reasons provided are:
    • Convenience
    • Work and life responsibilities
    • Cost
  • Employers want to see that you have interpersonal skill as well.
  • Employers need to see that you are able and, in fact, interacted well with your instructors and student colleagues.
    • Make sure your distance education program facilitates teacher-student interaction.
    • Make sure your program fosters student interaction.


Don’t Try to Go the Distance of Online Learning Alone!

Student support services are important! Some might think of the online learner as a kind of academic Lone Ranger. Don’t make this mistake. Distance education has its own learning curve and requires students to “acclimatize” to the distance education environment. There will be technical and technological factors that will need to be in order as well as time scheduling and course participation techniques that will need to be quickly mastered if the online student is to thrive and be successful. When considering which college or program to enroll in, always be sure to inquire into that school’s online support philosophy and level of commitment. High quality distance education will normally have a staff of trained specialists in online student support that can address any number of student questions from the best technologies and applications to how to more easily get in touch with instructors and classmates. Good online instructors will often have in their course materials a resource guide on how to be successful online students as well.


Not All Online Programs are Equal! 

This fact may not be all that surprising or “earth-shaking” to many readers. However, as we’ve already hinted at earlier, there are common misconceptions about online education. Online programs and courses are not “one size fits all”. It’s important not only to find a good online school, it’s just as important to enroll in the right classes. Options abound in online education, so there’s no reason to rush into programs and classes that don’t fit your needs and aspirations. Give yourself time to do the needed research and explore your options, so that you’ll land in the best programs and courses for YOU! The following are some key areas to explore when considering distance learning. Normally admissions counselors should be able to address many of the following areas:

  • Degree Program itself: is it a good fit for you?
  • Curriculum: does the course work, assignments, readings, etc., correspond to your needs?
  • Financing: is the aid program sufficient, and is it accessible to you?
  • Graduation Rates: this can often indirectly indicate students’ experience in a program. High retention and graduation rates often indicate satisfied students and a strong program.
  • How the course is delivered: video or text based?
  • Is the course Synchronous or Asynchronous?
  • Are Instructors qualified experts in the field: Do professors mostly have terminal degrees (PhD or equivalent) in the field of study?
  • Can I bring my own life experiences to bear both in class setting and for credit?
  • Are Credits earned able to transferred to another institution?


Online College Training and Degrees May Be the Wave of the Future. 

New technologies, more students in college and growing demand for online instruction are coming together in a way that suggests that the future of higher education is digital and distance. What began as small, often for-profit, ventures in online learning now sees big name schools in the act. According to one recent study, the massive developments and movement towards a more digital educational experience has met with approval from college students. Experts predict that as the number of those studying in college continues to grow and diversify the student population, we’ll see greater numbers enrolled in distance learning. There is a also potential darker side to online education as well. As demand increases and technology develops, companies will want to get a piece of the action by promoting their goods and services. This is part of the inevitable mix of money and education. However, the best schools and programs will not forget that their first priority is providing the best possible online education for their students.


The Style of Online Course Delivery Matters

Distance education is delivered in a number of ways, and the virtual classroom experience can vary widely, depending upon institutional and program standards as well as each professor’s approach to online teaching and student interaction. In looking at various online options it’s helpful to have an idea of the basic ways in which distance education courses are most commonly delivered. Knowing the mode of a program or course’s delivery will help you make an informed decision about the kind of commitments and responsibilities that will be required:

  • Blended: combines online learning with a certain amount of face-to-face instruction
  • Media platforms: exclusively web-based; use of e-mail or mobile phone
  • Synchronous: students engage in class at the same time
  • Asynchronous: student engagement in class doesn’t occur at the same time


Technology and Some Hardware needed 

Most distance learners will not have constant or easy access to standard resources available to traditional students through their institutions. Online students will need to invest a bit more in technology and hardware if they want to flourish in online education. Some of the most common items that will greatly assist distance learners, beyond a good computer, are:

  • Printer
  • Bibliography Program
  • Note Taking Software
  • A quality video camera and headset


Open Distance Learning

It may surprise you to learn that many places offer online courses that anyone can take. This universal access to online courses and programs is called “open learning” or “open and distance learning (ODL). The name means just what it says. Any interested person, regardless of prior education, background or financial status can participate in the benefits of the course offered. In addition to distance education options with academic prerequisites and tuition costs, open learning options are available.  Often these courses can be used for credit in degree programs as well. Take the time to explore ODL courses in addition to the more standard distance education models. You may just find what you’re looking for.